December 3, 2012

The grand tradition of starving Scottish authors


James Kelman would like you to buy his f#@*&!% books already.

Shocking news this week from Scotland: writing may not, in all cases, be a wildly lucrative vocation.

David Robinson reports for The Scotsman on a recent speech author James Kelman gave while accepting the prize for the Saltire Society’s Scottish Book of the Year for his eighth novel Mo Said She Was Quirky. Kelman, Scotland’s only Man Booker winner and twice a nominee for the International Man Booker, called the £5,000 prize “really useful”, saying

“As a writer, last year I think I earned about £15,000. And that after being a writer for about 40 years.”

Kelman went on to give an angry expletive-laden speech, largely blaming Scotland for a lack of enthusiasm in their home-grown literary talent, as opposed to Ireland, and calling out cultural organizations like the Edinburgh International Book Festival for working with “imperialist” groups like the British Council.

Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review pairs news of the outburst with a reminder that Nobel winner Patrick White earned only $7000 in royalties during the last six months of his life.

It is tempting to say that relative poverty is simply part of the life of a literary author. Tempting, that is, until news reaches us that Mo Yan has earned somewhere around $3.45 million in royalties this year.

It is indeed a shame that an author of Kelman’s renown makes so little from his work. Perhaps the problem has something to do with the mundane and provincial nature of his books. After all, how big can the audience for novels about hardscrabble Scottish lives really be?

Whether Kelman is right to point the finger at his compatriots, perhaps it will help him to know that his plight is not without precedent. If I might point him to this 1817 letter by Sir Walter Scott about the financial difficulties of another of Scotland’s most celebrated novelists, James Hogg. It’s worth reading in its entirety (Hogg sank his first royalties into a flock of sheep!) but the most salient part might be

“In bookselling matters an author must either be the conjuror, who commands the devil, or the witch who serves him—and few are they whose position is sufficiently independent to allow them to assume the higher character—and this is injurious to the indigent author in every respect, for not only is he obliged to turn his pen to every kind of composition, and so to injure himself with the public by writing hastily, and on subjects unfitted for his genius;”



Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.